Throughout 2002, scores of journalists in Cuba were harassed, detained, threatened with prosecution or jail, or had their freedom of movement restricted. Some had their reporting materials confiscated or their phone communications disrupted. Often, the government prevented journalists from covering opposition activities, turning reporters back or even forcing them to stay at their homes under surveillance. The state security agency also tried to tarnish the reputations of journalists and damage their relations with their families or colleagues. Occasionally, journalists’ relatives were harassed or denied government services.
State repression continued to be more severe in the provinces, far from the scrutiny of the Havana-based foreign news bureaus and diplomatic corps. While some independent journalists fled the country to escape repression, others have stayed and continue to work under harsh conditions. Although independent news reports cannot circulate inside Cuba, where the government owns and controls all media outlets, independent journalists inform the Cuban community abroad and the world at large about local developments that the official press chooses to ignore.
Many foreign news outlets have correspondents in Havana, but it is hard to tell what effect their presence has had on the government’s actions against the independent press. While foreign journalists can report on human rights abuses, the government has calculated that it can influence international coverage and derive some benefit by appearing to show tolerance. Nonetheless, the government often subjects foreign correspondents to subtle and not-so-subtle pressures. In the past, the government has accused foreign journalists of “spreading lies and insults against the Revolution” and has hinted that it might consider closing entire news bureaus rather than expelling individual reporters. Officials grant visas to foreign journalists selectively, excluding those from outlets deemed unfriendly, such as The Miami Herald. Most significantly, Cubans don’t have access to foreign news about their own country.
In the single most important initiative ever to challenge the regime, a coalition of opposition groups in May submitted the Varela Project, a petition calling for the reform of laws that violate human rights and other constitutional rights, to Cuba’s National Assembly. The country’s constitution allows petitions with signatures from at least 10,000 eligible voters to be presented to the assembly for consideration. Varela Project organizers gathered more than 11,000 signatures and requested that five proposals, including one demanding the right to freedom of expression and the press, be submitted to a national referendum. In response, the government held its own petition drive in June to support a constitutional reform making Cuba’s socialist system “irrevocable.” While the government-backed reform was quickly adopted, the National Assembly has refused to consider the Varela Project, which has received widespread international support.
The Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling, which was founded in 2001 and is the most active of three organizations of independent journalists, continued its work in 2002 despite government intimidation. In March, the association was forced to suspend its journalism courses temporarily after members were blocked from the group’s offices. The association condemned the harassment and vowed to continue the classes, changing schedules and choosing different locations to evade police surveillance. In late December, the association launched its magazine, Revista de Cuba, which features articles by independent journalists.
Journalist Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, imprisoned since 1997 for “disrespecting” President Fidel Castro and Cuban State Council member Carlos Lage in statements made to Miami-based radio stations, was transferred in July from a labor camp to the infamous maximum-security Ariza Prison. Arévalo Padrón remains in jail despite being eligible for parole since October 2000, and his health has suffered as a result of his prolonged incarceration. During a reporting trip to Cuba in May, CPJ board member and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page visited the Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling and delivered medicine to Arévalo Padrón.
Carlos Alberto Domínguez, Léster Téllez Castro, and Carlos Brizuela Yera, three journalists who are also active members of opposition groups, have been imprisoned since early 2002. CPJ has concluded that these journalists were jailed for their human rights activism rather than for their journalistic work. A public prosecutor has asked a court to give Téllez Castro and Brizuela Yera six-year and five-year prison sentences, respectively. It is unclear whether any charges have been brought against Domínguez. All three have written letters from jail denouncing harsh prison conditions.
Concerned about the growing popularity of the quarterly magazine Encuentro de la cultura cubana, which is published by a group of Cuban exiles based in Madrid, Spain, the Cuban government in December accused the publication of being “a political operation of the U.S. government.” The magazine provides a forum for cultural and political debate for Cubans from the island and abroad. Although it is banned in Cuba, copies are distributed by hand and are in great demand.
The government continues to deny exit permits to journalists who have obtained foreign visas to resettle abroad. Other journalists invited to conferences or seminars abroad have been told that they would be allowed to leave Cuba only if they promise never to return.
Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández, who received an International Press Freedom Award from CPJ in 1999 while imprisoned in Cuba, was finally presented with his award at the 2002 ceremony in November. Díaz Hernández was sentenced to four years in prison in 1999 for “dangerousness.” He was released in 2001, after an intensive campaign by CPJ and other press freedom groups, and then moved to the United States.
Omar Rodríguez Saludes, Nueva Prensa Cubana
Rodríguez Saludes, 36, director of the independent news agency Nueva Prensa Cubana, was arrested by police after covering a meeting between several well-known dissidents and a Spanish official. The journalist was arrested at about 6 p.m. outside the Spanish Embassy, in the municipality of Habana Vieja, where several opposition leaders met with Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, secretary-general of Catalonia’s ruling party, Convergencia i Unió (Convergence and Union). After the meeting, Rodríguez Saludes tried to interview the dissidents but was arrested by the police.
The journalist was handcuffed and taken to a police station, where a state security officer interrogated him about his work. The officer called Rodríguez Saludes’ writing “counterrevolutionary,” according to the independent news agency CubaPress. Sources in Cuba told CPJ that the journalist was released around 11:45 p.m. the same day. Some of the dissidents who attended the earlier meeting waited for him outside the police station until his release.
Andrew Cawthorne, Reuters
Alfredo Tedeschi, Reuters
Police and state security agents attacked Reuters journalists Tedeschi and Cawthorne with batons while they covered an incident in front of the Mexican Embassy in the capital, Havana. A group of Cuban citizens had used a bus to crash into the gates of the embassy in hopes of seeking asylum, according to international news reports.
Police chased, beat, and detained several onlookers who had congregated outside the embassy. The two journalists were caught in the fray: Tedeschi, a cameraman, was beaten to the ground by police, and his camera was taken. Cawthorne, Reuters’ Cuba correspondent, was beaten on the arm and back.
Although violent attacks against journalists in Cuba are unusual, Reuters reported that police and state security agents aggressively moved foreign media workers away from the scene, calling them “sons of bitches.” Plainclothes state security agents and police with dogs later cordoned off an area of several blocks around the embassy, banning access to journalists and passers-by.
The gate crash was prompted by rumors that Mexico had offered to grant asylum to all Cubans who wanted to leave the country. As a result, hundreds of Cubans gathered outside the embassy to seek information. Mexican chargé d’affaires Andrés Ordóñez later met with foreign journalists and denied that Mexico had changed its immigration policy toward Cuba.
Léster Téllez Castro, Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña
Jesús Álvarez Castillo, CubaPress
Álvarez Castillo, correspondent for the independent news agency CubaPress in the central province of Ciego de Ávila, was attacked by state security forces. Álvarez Castillo told CPJ that at about 11 a.m., he and a colleague, Téllez Castro of the independent news agency Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña, were on their way to cover a demonstration by the human rights organization Fundación Cubana de Derechos Humanos (FCDH) in the city of Ciego de Ávila when Interior Ministry officers stopped them and turned them back.
The journalists then went to a post office nearby and called a colleague. While they were on the phone, State Security Department (DSE) officers arrived and told the journalists they were under arrest. As Téllez Castro started shouting, “Long live human rights!” and anti-government slogans, an officer held him from behind, while another officer applied a chokehold to Álvarez Castillo and dragged him to the officers’ car. Both journalists were taken to the local DSE headquarters.
As Álvarez Castillo exited the car in front of the DSE headquarters, he fainted and was taken to a hospital. Téllez Castro was released soon after arriving at the DSE headquarters. At the hospital, X-rays revealed that Álvarez Castillo had a sprained neck. Meanwhile, at around 1 p.m., several journalists and FCDH activists gathered at the hospital to inquire about Álvarez Castillo’s condition and to protest the attack. The group included Téllez Castro, who is also the organizing secretary of the FCDH, and Carlos Brizuela Yera, a reporter with the independent news agency Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey who is also active in the organization.
The protesters were charged with “public disorder” and other offenses for allegedly physically blocking access to a hallway inside the hospital. They were arrested by police and taken to the Technical Department of Investigations (DTI). At around 2 p.m., Álvarez Õastillo was discharged from the hospital and also brought to DTI headquarters, where he was held until 6:30 p.m. During that time, he was told to describe the beating incident and his statements were videotaped.
On March 11, the police transferred the hospital protesters, which included Brizuela Yera, to a detention center in the eastern province of Holguín. Téllez Castro was moved to a facility in the central province of Cienfuegos. In April, Téllez Castro was transferred to Canaleta Prison, in Ciego de Ávila, while Brizuela Yera was moved to a prison in Holguín. All of the hospital protesters have been charged and are facing stiff sentences, but the Ciego de Ávila public prosecutor cited the past criminal records of Téllez Castro and Brizuela Yera in seeking prison sentences of six and five years, respectively, for the two men. Téllez Castro had previously served six years for armed robbery; Brizuela had been convicted of assaulting a police officer.
Local authorities have called Álvarez Castillo to testify against his colleagues charged for protesting his attack. In early August, officials charged him with perjury, a crime punishable by six months to eight years in prison. The cases remained pending at year’s end.
Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling
The Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling (SPMMS), an association of independent journalists, was forced to suspend its journalism courses temporarily after its members were blocked from entering the association’s offices.
At about 1 p.m., several Department of State Security (DSE) officers stopped journalists Jorge Olivera Castillo, Dorka Céspedes Vila, Omar Rodríguez Saludes, Adolfo Fernández Sainz, Aimée Cabrera Álvarez, and Pedro Pablo Álvarez before they reached the SPMMS offices, which are located in the municipality of Playa in the capital, Havana. Journalists Ricardo González Alfonso, Carmelo Díaz Fernández, Víctor Manuel Domínguez, and Álida Viso Bello, who were already inside, were forced to postpone the classes.
On March 22, the SPMMS issued a communiqué condemning the crackdown. Members have vowed to continue the courses and have changed class schedules and locations to overcome DSE surveillance.
Juan Carlos Garcell Pérez, Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental
Garcell Pérez, a journalist with the independent news agency Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental in the eastern province of Holguín, was detained twice and beaten by police, according to the journalists’ association Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling, of which Garcell Pérez is a local representative.
At around 7 p.m. on May 3, when Garcell Pérez was interviewing a patient’s mother at a hospital in the town of Sagua de Tánamo, a police officer grabbed him and took him to the local police station. He was released an hour later, but an officer hit him twice during the detention.
Later the same day, at around midnight, eight police officers arrived at the journalist’s house, detained him, and searched his home for two hours. The officers confiscated several books on journalism, as well as personal documents. Garcell Pérez was released at 1 p.m. the next day. He was fined, and the police registered him as a person with “high criminal potential.”
Juan Carlos Garcell Pérez, Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental
Garcell Pérez, a journalist with the independent news agency Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental in the eastern province of Holguín, was detained at the Holguín train station as he returned from the capital, Havana, according to the Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling, of which Garcell Pérez is a local representative. A police officer and two state security agents searched his belongings and took him to the Holguín Police Station, where he was interrogated, held for two hours, and threatened with charges of violating Law 88, which mandates prison terms of up to 20 years for anyone found guilty of “ruining internal order” and “destabilizing the country.”
The agents asked the journalist about a fax machine he had bought in Havana and about books on journalism and office materials he was given while visiting the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Ángel Pablo Polanco, Noticuba
Polanco, 60, director of the independent news agency Noticuba, was detained at around 11:30 a.m. by plainclothes state security agents who came to his apartment, in the Havana municipality of Diez de Octubre, according to Polanco’s wife.
ùhe security agents, who said they were looking for “illegal items,” searched the apartment until 8:30 p.m., confiscating several electronic appliances, including a fax machine and a cordless phone, documents, books, money, and Polanco’s passport.
The security agents did not have a warrant, but they arrested Polanco, who is handicapped and can barely walk, and demanded that he leave with them. When he refused, the officers lifted him, carried him away, and forced him into a car.
The journalist, who was released on August 3, told the independent journalists’ association Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling that the authorities charged him with instigating others to commit the crimes of “contempt for authority” and “insulting the nation’s symbols.”
ýolanco is now required to report bimonthly to a local police station while police continue an investigation. His confiscated items have not been returned to him. In the past, Polanco has filed news reports for the Miami-based Web sites Nueva Prensa Cubana and Cubanet. More recently, his reports have been broadcast back to Cuba over Miami-based, U.S. government-funded Radio Martí.
Pablo Pacheco, Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes
Pacheco, a journalist with the independent news agency Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes (CAPI), based in the central province of Ciego de Ávila, was harassed and threatened by police.
The journalist, accompanied by his wife and his son, was filming a rodeo tournament in the town of Jicotea at around 5 p.m. when he saw several police officers beating two women. As Pacheco attempted to videotape the incident, officers grabbed the camera, arrested the journalist, and took him to the Jicotea Police Station, where he was held for 45 minutes. The police then took him to the Ciego de Ávila police headquarters, where he arrived at around 7 p.m.
At the Ciego de Ávila police headquarters, police insulted Pacheco and threatened to imprison him. The journalist was told he wasn’t under arrest, but that they needed to erase the material he had recorded because he could send it abroad “to discredit the Revolution,” according to the journalist. Pacheco remained at the police station for four hours, until the police returned the camera to him with the erased tape.